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August 31, 2013

New Christy Minstrels plan to deliver mix of familiar and new songs

— A singing group known for its older style of music is still bringing new songs.

The New Christy Minstrels will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7 at Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center in Richland Township.

The group is known for hits such as “Today,” “Green, Green,” “Saturday Night,” “Denver” and “Mighty Mississippi.”

Randy Sparks, now 80, founded what he called the “Big Folk Group” in 1961.

He is still performing and will come to Johnstown along with seven other members, including two other originals.

Sparks believes the mix of old and new is the best collection of performers ever to have been billed as The New Christy Minstrels, with each performer adding diverse and unique talents to the pool.

“We’re still alive, still creative and still eager to please, so we make a deal with the audience,” Sparks said.

“We’ll do all the old songs you came to hear, if you’ll allow just a couple of the newer ones.”

Still writing songs every day and going out on tour to perform, Sparks is not interested in slowing down.

Like his mentors, comedians Burl Ives and Bob Hope, Sparks said his goal is to work until he dies.

“With fewer people and an upgraded sound system that is state of the art, you get a better sound,” Sparks said.

“We never have a performance without a standing ovation.”

The New Christy Minstrels have played all over Pennsylvania, and will make a stop at B.B. King’s in New York City before coming to Johnstown.

“This will be the first time I worked for someone older than I am,” Sparks quipped.

Most members of the group are over 65, and four are in their 70s.

“We have our share of fun in front of an audience,” Sparks said. “If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it. Nowadays, I don’t get paid with the foundation.”

Sparks was referring to the New Christy Minstrels Foundation, which was established for the preservation of folk music history, folk lore and the teaching of folk music to future generations.

“I do it for the love of music,” Sparks said. “People are fun to deal with. To make them smile should be our life’s work.”

In 1963, Sparks made the group’s first recording with 10 members. After that recording, which earned a Grammy Award, five members quit, saying it was the dumbest idea they ever heard of.

“To most people, the idea of a big folk group didn’t make sense,” Sparks said. “I had a difficult time getting good people.”

To join The New Christy Minstrels, a performer must be able to perform solo as well as with the group.

“Everyone has to take their turn at the mic and turn the audience on its ear,” Sparks said.

He added that everyone plays a different instrument, and some play several.

The group’s new CD is “Nice Time to Be Alive.”

Ruth Rice covers features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at Twitter.com/RuthRiceTD.

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